The catalog copy for SMALL DAMAGES describes it as “JUNO meets UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN,” and I suppose that’s an effective shorthand. The sun here is in Spain rather than northern Italy, and Kenzie Spitzer is less in control of her situation than Juno MacGuff (and also less blessed with supportive parents)--but if you need to give a point of reference, it’ll do.
The whole idea of sending a pregnant teenager away until she has given birth--and given away her baby to adoptive parents, so that she can then return home from her mysterious trip and pick up her life where she left off--is an oddly old-fashioned one, and while the novel is clearly contemporary, its time frame isn’t quite current. It’s also an interesting angle on the question of “choice” debate, in which adoption seems to be the least-discussed choice much of the time--but unlike Juno, Kenzie doesn’t feel much ownership of this particular choice. Feeling resentful and out of control, her stay in Spain seems like exile, and her inadequate knowledge of the language is only one source of her discomfort as she struggles to come to terms with the turns her life has taken.
Beth Kephart, on the other hand, seems to operate very comfortably within this foreign setting, and SMALL DAMAGES is among her best work. Having said that, even less-stellar Beth Kephart is still pretty darn good, but I think this is her richest, most resonant novel since THE HEART IS NOT A SIZE (also set in a Spanish-speaking country). It’s not hard to get caught up in the beauty of Kephart's writing--well-constructed, evocative description is among her particular strengths--but the story she’s telling here is particularly engaging. Her Kenzie isn’t always easy to like--she’s angry, confused, and comes off a bit spoiled at times--but her emotional growth over the course of the novel is convincing. Her voice is distinctive--less articulate than some of the author’s prior teenage protagonists (or Juno MacGuff, for that matter), maybe, but that suits both her general confusion and the foreign-ness of her setting. Influential cross-generational relationships are becoming another hallmark of Kephart's fiction; her teens struggle with their parents (one of whom may be absent or dead), but there are grandparent surrogates who play important roles, like the elderly lesbian neighbors in YOU ARE MY ONLY and Kenzie’s cooking teacher/guardian Estela here. Kenzie and Estela’s relationship develops believably from mutual irritation to real affection, and significantly affects Kenzie’s decisions later in the novel.
I’ve called several of Beth Kephart's books “the best one yet”--and I’m saying it again, but something feels different about SMALL DAMAGES. I think it brings the author’s gifts as writer and storyteller (which are not always synonymous or co-occurring things) together more effectively than any of her earlier fiction has, and I feel that it will stay with me longer. If you haven’t gotten around to reading Beth Kephart yet, start here--SMALL DAMAGES is one of the best books I’ve read this year.